WINNER, Fall 2015
The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
BY MAURA STANTON
The house was for sale. The house ghosts gathered in the basement that night to discuss what to do about it.
Emeline, a murder victim whose bones were still hidden in the backyard, sat hunched on the old futon, clutching her ragged shawl. She never talked, but she had large expressive eyes. With one other exception, the ghosts had been buried in coffins, and they sat on the moldy sofa, or on one of the folding chairs, just the way they used to sit in life. The other exception, Chloe, who’d been cremated, drifted about.
“Why are they selling?” asked Herbert, who always wore a fedora.
“The usual dissatisfaction.” Jill swooped up one of the passing ghost cats. She thought it was the striped one but it was hard to see the cats. They were more transparent than human ghosts. The cat squirmed and wouldn’t settle. Jill knew it wanted a warm human lap but she kept stroking it anyway until it fled.
“No, it’s greed. It’s always greed.” Nikolas, who’d fallen off the roof when he was twenty-seven, went on to tell them that he’d heard the phone call to the real estate agent. Ostensibly, the current owners wanted a house with more land where they could raise a family. But the real reason was clear—they wanted a Jacuzzi and a three-car garage. He sounded scornful. He’d been a communist sympathizer in the 30’s.
“I was hoping they’d have a baby,” Chloe said. She glittered like sequins. She was more a shadow than a ghost, and the rest were glad they had bones somewhere.
Gladys, Herbert’s wife, shook her head. “A live baby would be heartbreaking for little Oscar here.” She was holding her grandson again. He’d choked on a rubber ball at the age of fourteen months. She held him up under his fat little arms and got his legs pumping up and down on her lap.
Herbert cleared his throat. “Look, here’s the big question. They’re selling the house. So what do we do? Do we interfere? Scare off the buyers?”
“I’d hate to get some new people who fought all the time like that last bunch,” Jill said. “They drove me crazy.”
“Me, too,” Herbert said. He rubbed his forehead with his fingertips as if he still had the headache that had predicted his aneurism. Gladys noticed. She stood up, and put the baby down on the floor so it could crawl away. The floor was dirty, but the baby’s nothingness could not be sullied by spider webs or cricket legs or dried up moths.
“Look,” Gladys said, glancing around to make sure that everyone was listening, even Emeline with her glittering eyes. “We’re ghosts, right? We should be able to control who moves in here. Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll scare off the ones we don’t like.”
“Who do we want to move in here?” Chloe asked.
“We want a nice young professional couple who both work, like Bob and Suzanne. We want the house to ourselves most of the time, right? We don’t want people with hobbies, or retirees, or teenagers. How would you like a garage band practicing down here?”
“I don’t know,” Chloe said. “Maybe some drums would be good for us.”
The others looked at her with horror.
“Meeting adjourned,” Herbert said.
Jill had lived in the grey two story house when she was a teenager. She could have returned to several other houses or apartments or locations—even a beach—the instant a speeding car ran into her bike and killed her at a busy intersection, but she remembered being happiest in the house on Spring Street in the small town of Wander, now a bedroom community for the big city. The day she arrived, the house had looked almost the same, except for the new Pella windows. And the Norway spruce in the front yard was huge!
Herbert had met her at the front door that day. He’d put his arm around her. “I remember you,” he’d said to her. “You’re Jill Parker. You lived here for about four years. I’m sorry to see you here so soon—you’re just in your late forties, right?”
Jill had nodded. “Will I always feel so cold?” she asked. She was shivering.
“You get used to it,” he said. “But I have a surprise for you. Your cat!”
He pointed down at the black shape that was rubbing against her shimmering new legs. She stooped, and lifted Ali Baba up against her shoulder. She looked into his wild yellow eyes and he looked back. He squirmed—he’d always hated to be picked up—and she let him down. He’d disappeared one day when she was fifteen and she’d searched the neighborhood for weeks.
“He was run over,” Herbert said gently. “Just like you.”
That day, after the meeting was adjourned, Jill drifted upstairs to see if there was anything she could do about the young couple’s dissatisfaction. Suzanne, wearing a headband to keep her dark, curly hair out of her eyes, was doing Tai Chi in her bathrobe. Bob, wearing only boxers, was standing in the bathroom doorway, texting.
The couple had remodeled one of the bedrooms, the bedroom that used to be Jill’s, into a walk in closet. The room now contained built-in white pressboard shelves and drawers. There were two sets of sliding doors, his and hers, where they hung their clothes, and a big wall mirror. The old acorn-and-leaf wallpaper, which had pre-dated Suzanne’s time in the room, had been torn off, and the room was painted pale peach.
Jill looked out the window in her old room. The Norway spruce was scraping against the house. A squirrel sat on a bough eating a nut. One of the nice things about being a ghost was that you never scared off wildlife.
She waved at the squirrel, but it kept gnawing and chewing. She turned and waved at the mirror but once again she saw nothing but the room. Jill knew she didn’t exist but it was hard to get used to. She had to keep testing.
Jill had a dream that she kept from the other house ghosts: she wanted to make a difference in death the way she never had in life. As a ghost she could do almost nothing, but ever since Bob and Suzanne had moved in she’d been breaking the rules of non-engagement and in secret ways encouraging them to be better and healthier people. She opened their magazines to articles about poverty in the Third World. She arranged their mail so that envelopes from Doctors Without Borders would catch their attention. She’d organize their digital TV channel lineup so that Nova would come on when Bob hit the control button instead of old reruns of Two and a Half Men. When Suzanne started gaining weight, Jill spoiled the milk (Suzanne was always making cocoa) and hid a box of chocolates in the recycle. One night she broke a full bottle of gin when Bob, already tipsy, tried to make himself another martini. He thought he’d done it himself, and in remorse gave up drinking for a month.
But she hadn’t been able to do anything about the young couple’s inchoate longings for something more. And they had so much! Good jobs, a nice house, vacations, a fridge stocked with yogurt and fresh fruit, veins pumping with blood.
They talked about having a baby. They talked about going to Australia. Bob thought he’d like to try scuba diving. Suzanne took up oil painting. She painted a still life with tulips, and a beach scene copied from the Nature Conservancy calendar, and a big jimson weed flower a la Georgia O’Keeffe. But she had nowhere to hang her paintings, she told Bob. That’s why a larger house would come in handy.
Remembering this, Jill had an idea. She entered the bedroom and ducked under Suzanne’s churning arms. Even though she could have drifted right through Suzanne as she did her Tai Chi, Jill always discreetly allowed the living to have some private space. The other ghosts laughed at her, but it was just something she felt sensitive about. Now she quickly knocked off the foam-backed poster of Maui that hung on the couple’s bedroom wall. Here’s some space, she shouted soundlessly.
Suzanne stopped her routine, her hands outspread in Passing Clouds. Then she dashed over and grabbed the feather-light poster and carefully rehung the scene of waves and surfers over the bookcase in the corner.
“Bob!” Suzanne called. “I want our new house to have a swimming pool!”
“Fine by me,” Bob shouted from the bathroom.
When the real estate agent pounded the For Sale sign into the yard, the house ghosts joked about how they felt stabbed through the heart, but they were all feeling pretty grim about it. You expected life to change, but wasn’t death a permanent state? Apparently not.
A lock box now hung on the front door.
Bob and Suzanne were at work when the first prospective buyers arrived. Herbert and Gladys stood in the living room by the fireplace, holding hands, watching anxiously as the perky blond agent, Marley, ushered an older couple through the door.
Retirees!! Herbert and Gladys exchanged glances.
“This house was one of the Sears kit houses built in the 1920’s,” the agent was explaining. “It’s never been added on to, so the shape is traditional. But it’s been completely remodeled. Look at that staircase. Look at the exposed wood. And these floors! Aren’t they great? Look at the proportions of this living room.”
The old man had short grey hair. So did the woman. They were dressed alike in pale washed blue jeans and running shoes. The man wore a grey t-shirt. The woman wore a blue t-shirt and a padded vest.
Herbert hurried out to the kitchen and dripped the faucet. Gladys fanned a breeze across the bare neck of the woman, and was gratified when she shivered and pulled up the collar of her vest.
Marley, the agent, chatted away. The couple said nothing. They stood in the middle of the kitchen, looking blankly at the big steel Sub-Zero refrigerator. The man turned the handle on the faucet and stopped the dripping.
Upstairs, they scoffed at the bedroom-cum-walk-in closet. “Who has this many clothes anyway?” the man asked. The woman shook her head and zipped her vest higher. They looked at Bob and Suzanne’s bedroom, at the coverlet covered with shellfish, the Maui poster, and the bedside table lamps with conch shells bases.
“They sure must like fish,” the man said.
“Those stairs are on the steep side,” the woman said.
Gladys and Herbert smiled.
At the next showing, a middle-aged businessman took pictures of everything to show his wife. He admired the Sub-Zero refrigerator, and spent a long time in the basement measuring to see how much space there was for his exercise equipment and his wine cellar. Chloe favored him, but Nikolas shook his head and made the lights flicker. He grinned when he heard the businessman tell Marley that it would probably cost a fortune to rewire the house.
Emeline made them all nervous. She’d been murdered and buried on the lot before the house was built so technically she’d never lived in the house. Her bones were still out there under the forsythia bushes in the back yard. She wore a long dress and high-topped boots and a ragged shawl. Once she had opened the shawl, unbuttoned her dress, and shown Jill her stab wound. Jill had been shocked that she’d elected to keep such a horrible mark, for it wasn’t necessary. The rest of them had chosen to resemble their favorite photos, so they saw each other as youngish and vital, which helped keep their spirits up. But perhaps Emeline had no photos of herself. She’d grown up in the 19th Century. Luckily she spent a lot of time by herself in the furnace room. She’d sit with her back to the warm furnace for hours at a time. In the summer she roamed about rubbing her hands. She always brought a chill into a room when she entered. Back when Jill was alive, and used to the live in the house as a teenager, she’d feel the chill but she didn’t know what it was.
Jill didn’t know if Emeline just couldn’t talk, or if she had chosen not to talk. But Emeline always came to the meetings, and she’d listen, and nod, and vote with the majority by raising her hand.
On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Suzanne got out the album of honeymoon photos, and sat down next to Bob at the table in the breakfast nook where he was eating his Cheerios and drinking coffee. Jill happened to be in the kitchen looking out the window, and she floated over to take a look.
Bob had to move his bowl aside so Suzanne could open the big leatherette album.
“Look, there we are in St. Mark’s Square,” Suzanne said.
Bob nodded. He pointed to another photo. “That’s the café where we had Aperol spritz the first time, right?”
“And there’s our gondolier. What was his name?”
“Don’t you wish we were going back to Venice?”
Bob shrugged. “Not really. I think we used it up. I’d like to go back to Maui.”
“Well, I’d like to go back to Maui, too. But Venice! That was a great trip.”
“Did you make reservations for dinner tonight?”
“Yes, at Chez Charles. 7 p.m.”
Bob got up to get dressed for work. Suzanne continued to look at the pictures and Jill looked over her shoulder. She’d never been to Venice, but she’d always wanted to go and she regretted not going now that she was dead. You were not allowed to go to places you’d never been before. You could only return to places you’d been. If only she’d known that when she was alive!
She stared at a picture of Suzanne standing by a canal. She was wearing a light skirt and sandals. She looked younger and happier than she did now.
Suzanne must have noticed, too. Abruptly she slammed the album shut.
Jill and Nikolas were reading in the living room a few days later when Suzanne, who’d just come in the front door from work, got a text message from Bob.
“Oh, my God,” Suzanne squealed.
She called Bob back. “Is it true? The loan’s approved? We’ve got our house? So now all we have to do is sell this one. Why is it taking so long? Should we stage it?”
Suzanne continued on to the kitchen, still talking.
Nikolas shook his head. He was reading one of his own books, an invisible copy of Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class. Jill was reading an early John Le Carre that Bob had inherited from his father. She’d stuck it hastily under a sofa cushion when she heard Suzanne at the door. She would have to sneak it back into the bookcase when she got a chance.
“We’re screwed.” Nikolas got up, stretching and frowning. “Some family with three noisy kids will move in here now.”
“Kids mostly play video games these days,” Jill said. “It’s not that. I just feel bad for Bob and Suzanne. This is the perfect house for them, and they don’t know it.”
“Greed, greed, greed,” Nikolas muttered. “Everyone wants more. They’re destroying the earth, or haven’t they noticed.”
“They’ve noticed,” Jill said. “But they can’t stop.”
She’d had this conversation with Nikolas before, and urged him to do something if he was so worried about capitalism and global warming and all that. But he’d insisted that since he was a ghost, he could do nothing. He was the past. He was there to be interpreted, but he could not act. Only the living could act. “Can’t we make them act?” Jill had asked. Nikolas had laughed. “Shall we go whooing through the graveyard tonight? That’ll get them moving.”
Chloe and Jill had become best friends. They liked to sit out on the deck at night in the summer looking at the stars and talking in quiet voices about way, way back when they were still alive, and so dumb, so very very dumb. It wasn’t that they ever truly believed they’d live forever, they knew they wouldn’t, it was just that somehow or other they’d gotten the notion that it didn’t matter. Jill told Chloe about her messy divorce, and how her new vegan boyfriend from California had cheated on her, too, and how champagne, even real French champagne from Reims, could not compare in any way to a delicious cold grape Mr. Misty at the DQ on a hot summer night. She told Chloe about going green and riding her bicycle to work (yes, she always wore a helmet) and how she’d felt so tough and righteous when she sailed by cars stuck in traffic. And Chloe told Jill about the pills she took that made her feel calm and invulnerable, and how she had always loved driving fast on the freeway with the lights of other cars and big rigs streaming around her. She’d thought she had plenty of time to lead a life, or else that it didn’t make much difference whether she died early or late. But she’d been dismembered in a car accident at nineteen, she told Jill, and cremated, and now she was stuck in the Midwest for eternity. No New York. No Paris or London or even Miami Beach. There was a house in Indianapolis where she’d once lived, so that was an option, but the house was crowded with disappointed Pentecostals. This house, which her parents had rented for a few years when she was a kid, was the best she could do.
“This house is pretty nice,” Jill told her. “My first choice when the paramedics couldn’t revive me was the beach on Marco Island where I once spent a week. But I’ve never seen so many doleful ghosts wandering along the edge of the water. There were thousands and thousands in bikinis or Hawaiian shirts or Speedos. There were so many they were passing through one another, hardly noticing each other, and all of them moaning and groaning louder than the sea. There was nothing to do but wander up and down looking at shells. And there was no point in picking up a shell. Where could you put it? And I couldn’t get warm—you know how the sun doesn’t penetrate us. So I came here. Much nicer.”
“This is OK,” Chloe said. “I’m glad Bob and Suzanne like to watch House Hunters International. I hope the new people will, too.”
The house was staged for the open house. Bob and Suzanne filled boxes and put many of their things into storage—extra pots and pans, linens, winter clothes. Jill was dismayed when Bob emptied the bookcase—the books had all belonged to his father—and carted the books to the library book sale so he could write them off on his income taxes. Jill had just discovered John Le Carre and now the books were gone. Nikolas told Jill that she could read some of his invisible books, but they were all off-putting out of date tomes like Trade Union Wage Policy by Arthur M. Ross or Man’s Worldly Goods by Leo Huberman. Jill felt discouraged. Her quality of death had diminished.
Bob placed a bottle of French champagne on top of the wet bar, and set out a few inviting glasses. Suzanne ordered a cheerful bouquet of yellow roses and daisies for the dining room table. They walked about, admiring their gleaming almost empty house.
“I’d buy this place,” Bob said.
“Me, too.” Suzanne grinned.
“So why are we moving?”
They both laughed. They went out the door. An Open House sign stood beside the For Sale sign on the front lawn.
The ghosts gathered in the living room. They sat down on the sofa and the love seat and the chairs. Emeline sat in the rocking chair.
“Why don’t we open the champagne,” Chloe said. “Somebody should drink it.”
“Against the rules,” Herbert said, adjusting the brim of his fedora.
“You know what I mean.” Herbert put his arm around Gladys. She was holding the baby. One of the striped cats, and Jill’s cat Ali Baba, padded into the room. Various hands stretched out longingly to pet them but the cats undulated out of reach.
Gladys handed the baby to Herbert. She sat forward with a take-charge look on her face. “Listen,” she said. “Somebody coming today is likely to make an offer on the house. We just have to make sure it’s the right somebody. We’ve got to discourage the ones we don’t like. Why don’t we each take a room?”
“Good idea,” Nikolas said. “I’ll take the study. If I see somebody I don’t like I’ll make sure they see that big crack in the corner Bob keeps hidden.”
“And I’ll take the downstairs, the living room and dining room.” Gladys pointed at the front door. “I’ll evaluate them as they come in and let the rest of you know what I think. Herbert is good in the kitchen with drips and pipe-banging.”
“I’ll handle the bedroom,” Jill said. “I’ll open the window so they can hear the traffic noise if they’re the wrong sort.”
“And I’ll take the walk-in closet,” Chloe said. “It’s easy to keep that light switch from working.”
“Emeline?” Gladys looked at the rocking chair where Emeline was rocking back and forth, her hand on her chest wound. “Can you handle the basement?”
Emeline’s eyes widened. She stopped rocking and nodded vigorously.
Jill rested on Bob and Suzanne’s bed. She was waiting for a prospective buyer to come upstairs. Her eyes were closed. She pretended she was fifteen again. It was a summer afternoon with fresh breezes, not air conditioning, blowing across her brow. She had new, small breasts under her red tank top, and strong legs in short shorts, and a whole life ahead of her. So what should she do differently?
Jill thought about it. Would she trust a condom and let Keith go all the way in his parent’s basement? Probably not. Would she study harder for the chemistry test? Maybe. Maybe not. Would she try to be less sullen when her mother asked her to do the dishes? She hoped so. And maybe she’d try out for the swim team this time.
Then Jill sat up, feeling angry with herself. The life she was imagining wasn’t that much different from the life she’d actually led. If she was going to do everything just about the same, what was the point? But there was no point, of course. She didn’t have a second chance.
“Look, Jill,” Chloe whispered. “Aren’t I beautiful?”
Jill looked at Chloe, standing in the doorway wearing one of Suzanne’s sundresses that she gotten from the walk-in closet. For a moment Jill only saw a colored rag and some dust floating in the air. Then she squinted and smiled until she’d forced herself to see a pretty girl with shapely arms pirouetting to show off the low back and the tiny straps.
It was Nikolas, looking down from the study window, who first saw the smoke. It seemed to be pouring out a basement window. He hurried downstairs to warn the others just as the alarms on each floor of the house blared and shrieked. Several prospective buyers were in the house, and Nikolas heard steps behind him on the stairs.
“What’s going on?” someone cried.
The real estate agent in charge of the open house, a friend of Marley’s, began to scream.
“People, people! There’s a fire. Get out, get out!”
“Did somebody call 911?”
“Yes, yes! Get out, get out. Is there anyone in the kitchen?”
Soon fire trucks were parked outside. Flames were shooting out of windows on the first floor, and firemen in masks were running in the door. The real estate agent and the prospective buyers were huddled on the lawn next door. Bob and Suzanne, contacted by the real estate agent, pulled up in their car.
“Oh, my God!” Suzanne screamed. She ran up to one of the firemen but he ordered her back. Something exploded inside the house. Two firemen were training a hose on the roof.
The ghosts were gathered in the street. They were all standing so close together that a neighbor looking out the window next door saw a strange cloud on the ground.
“We should have left her out of this,” Jill said. “Emeline never lived in the house! It means nothing to her.”
“She thought she was helping by setting the fire,” Gladys said. “Oh dear, oh dear. Where will we go now?”
Soon the house was a shell. The main floor had fallen into the basement, and only the top of the stairway dangled over the smoking damp hole. The upstairs rooms had only suffered water damage, but the windows had been blown out by the force of the water, and the contents were ruined. Suzanne sobbed while Bob talked to the insurance agent. The insurance agent talked of cutting them a check for temporary living expenses. The firemen surrounded the house with yellow tape and drove away.
That night the ghosts wandered around the backyard. They all stayed away from the forsythia bushes, where Emeline was huddled with her bones. “She just didn’t understand the consequences,” Gladys said, when the others muttered and glanced at Emeline angrily. “I don’t think she was ever quite right in the head.”
“Don’t worry, they’ll rebuild the house,” Herbert said to the group as they floated through the tulips or rustled the maple trees. “They always do. If you don’t mind hanging around a ruin for a few months, then all that construction noise, you can stay on here.”
“But it won’t be the same house,” Jill said. “It won’t be MY house.”
Nikolas laughed. “You’re dead, and you still call it MY house? Nobody owns anything. The living think they own things, too, but they’re wrong.”
Herbert cleared his throat. “Gladys and me and the baby, we’re thinking of going out West. That’s an option for us. We rented this apartment in Arizona once, and the baby visited. It’s kind of small, but we don’t need much room anymore. Less and less, actually.” He looked down at the baby. “You know, when I was a kid I used to listen to Frankie Laine singing Ghost Riders in The Sky—and it never occurred to me I’d be one of those ghost riders myself one day.”
“And what if the apartment gets torn down,” Nikolas said. “Then what will you do? Live under a cactus?”
“Now we’ve always gotten along in this house,” Herbert began, “in spite of different political views, and I think—“
Jill cut him off. “Ali Baba! Where’s Ali Baba?”
“There he is,” Chloe said, pointing to a shadow near a bush.
Jill swept up her cat. She buried her face in his coolness. She thought about the shoddy apartment on the Washington beltway where she’d once lived with her husband, torn down only ten years after it was first put up, and the beach cottage in Santa Cruz that had been damaged in an earthquake. She’d spent a year there surfing with her rich and dippy but faithless boyfriend, and never wanted to see that cold ocean again. Her mother was still alive in a nursing home. Her father had gone back to Ireland after he died, but Jill had never been there so she couldn’t join him.
“I’m staying here,” she said, sitting down in the wet, dewy grass. “I’m not leaving Ali Baba again.”
Chloe looked at her, nodding. “I’m staying, too. Suzanne’s summer clothes are still up there in that walk-in closet. They just fit me, don’t they, Jill?” She grinned. “They smell like smoke, but so do I.” She laughed.
Nikolas pointed up. “And that’s the roof I fell off.”
Herbert and Gladys looked at each other. Then they looked at the others. “OK, OK, I guess we’ll stay, too,” Herbert said. “You guys are family now. It’ll be like camping out for a while.”
“At least it’s summer,” Gladys said. “For now.”
Herbert pointed up at the sky. “Look at those stars, will you.”
Jill looked up. She was going to have to get used to living outdoors for a while and eventually forever, because someday there wouldn’t be any houses left on the earth. She was glad that her sharp after-death vision cut through the light pollution and the foggy cloud cover. She marveled at the sky. It looked like it did not long after the Big Bang, the stars vibrating and singing on their way to the black edge of the universe and beyond.